By Michael Youhana
In April, I moderated a public discussion at UC Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies on the Trump administration’s decision to bomb Syrian regime facilities in response to a chemical attack in the city of Douma. At one point during the event, someone broached a question I always hear when outcry erupts over the use of chemical weapons in Syria: What makes chemical weapons so special? The majority of deaths in the Syrian Civil War are attributable to so-called “conventional” weapons, so why do chemical weapons uniquely demand a military response?
Answers standard to modern arms control discussions followed: Chemical weapons are especially inhumane. They are also especially indiscriminate. Responding to chemical weapon attacks with force deters the future use of such weapons and ensure that the international legal prohibition on the use of chemical weapons will not erode. And the Trump administration had to respond simply because it said it would; American credibility was at stake.
I am sure that these humanitarian and legal concerns were advanced in good faith. But I also think that Syria’s chemical weapons elicit deeper anxieties about the United States’s power and purpose in the world. Accordingly, I see the April strikes as an eruption in a broader, open-ended war on what Charles Krauthammer once called “Weapon States.”
Krauthammer coined the term “Weapon State” in a seminal essay written soon after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, “The Unipolar Moment.” Whereas Francis Fukuyama imagined that American foreign policy-makers would become preoccupied with “economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands” after the end of the Cold War, Krauthammer argued that future presidential administrations should continue to engage in a form of ideological struggle.
Yes, the Soviet Union was fading fast, but “the emergence of a new strategic environment marked by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction” created an array of fresh challengers to an American-led liberal order. If small-time autocracies with “deep grievances against the West” stockpiled weapons, then they would achieve an intolerable type of parity with the United States:
The divide between great powers and regional powers is radically narrowed… Missiles shrink distance. Nuclear (or chemical or biological) devices multiply power…. Fifty years ago… it was inconceivable that a relatively small Middle Eastern state with an almost entirely imported industrial base could do anything more than threaten its neighbors. The central truth of the coming era is that this is no longer the case.
In The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin offers a summation of the mood of American foreign policy-makers at around the time Krauthammer published his essay:
The end of the Cold War unleashed a wave of triumphalism, but it also provoked among American elites an anxious uncertainty about U.S. foreign policy. How should the United States now define its world role? When should it intervene in foreign conflicts? How big a military should it field? The United States seemed to be suffering from a surfeit of power, which made it difficult to formulate principles for its use.
It’s striking reading “The Unipolar Moment” side-by-side with Robin’s essay. A tract that looks a lot like a bellicose blueprint for a grand strategy is recast as an existential search for a purpose—a desperate scramble to find an empire’s raison d’être. Krauthammer concludes:
First, we will have to develop a new regime… to deny yet more high technology to these states. Second, those states that acquire such weapons anyway will have to submit to strict outside control or risk being physically disarmed. A final element must be the development of antiballistic missile and air defense systems… It is not a task we are any more eager to undertake than the great twilight struggle just concluded. But it is just as noble and just as necessary.
The War on Weapon States is not merely Krauthammer’s flight of fancy. Its logic has gripped American policymakers from the moment the First Gulf War ended and UNSCOM inspectors entered Iraq. Anthony Lake defended the sum total of Bill Clinton’s first-term national security priorities accordingly in a 1994 essay published in Foreign Affairs. In the essay, Lake identified several “outlaw states” that the Clinton administration hoped to “neutralize, contain and, through selective pressure, perhaps eventually transform.” Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Libya—each “unique in [their] history, culture, and circumstances,” but bound together by their shared contempt for “basic values” and their desire to develop weapons of mass destruction. Clinton’s national security advisor delivered a stark warning: “The ties between them are growing.”
Similarly, George W. Bush’s infamous 2002 State of the Union address drummed up fears of an “axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” Commentators panned the speech for implying, “a relationship among [North Korea, Iran, and Iraq] that doesn’t exist.” In fact, the governments of Iran and Iraq deeply distrusted each other. Never mind, Bush speechwriter David Frum, retorted: “All despised the humane values of democracy.”
The Obama administration lacked the Bush administration’s zeal for “democracy promotion,” but it too embraced the War on Weapon States. Leftists often critique Democratic presidents for their embrace of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. Yet there was no plausible humanitarian pretext for the administration’s first term policies towards Iran. Sanctions and the insistence that preemptive military strikes remained on “the table” owed more to Krauthammer’s battle cry to disarm Weapon States than to Samantha Power’s injunctions to promote human rights.
President Obama stepped back from the precipice by August 2013, with sanctions failing and a new, more pragmatic Iranian president in office. Years of diplomatic confidence-building yielded the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (or the “Iran nuclear deal”), which represented a tentative departure from the post-Cold War consensus. By shelving the military option against Iran, the Obama administration stalled the War on Weapon States and stoked the ire of prominent politicians and functionaries on both sides of the aisle—from Tom Cotton and Michael Flynn to Chuck Schumer and Leon Panetta.
When the Iron Curtain faded away, America’s defense intellectuals drew a red line as a substitute. Never again would an illiberal state be permitted to use weapons of mass destruction to threaten the United States or its interests abroad. The coercive power of the world’s sole superpower would be brought to bear to disarm recalcitrant regimes.
Much like the War on Terror, the War on Weapon States remains a salient organizing narrative for American foreign policy during the Trump era. The narrative’s force is apparent in Mike Pompeo’s boast that Iran is due for “the strongest sanctions in history.” Earlier this year, the War on Weapon States also inspired terrifying calls for preemptive war with North Korea. While tensions on the Korean Peninsula have abated for the moment, they may flare up once more under this president or another if our foreign policy consensus is left unchallenged.
Distinguishing between the War on Weapon States and arms control more generally is imperative. The former is a neoteric, imperial call to arms; the latter is a century-old diplomatic project to create a more humane world order. The sole concern of proponents of the War on Weapons States is the defeat of autocracies with “deep grievances against the West;” an effective movement for disarmament would seek to demilitarize all states, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, France, the United Kingdom, and, yes, the United States.
The antiwar left should channel its creative energies into pacific means to achieve the ends of disarmament and nonproliferation. Advocating for the ratification and promotion of the new UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons might be a place to start. More ambitious proponents of disarmament could even revive Jonathan Schell’s once-famous critique of the Westphalian system, which compels governments to stockpile weapons of mass destruction in the first place.
But in the short term, any antiwar movement worth its salt will also need to pressure the United States to renounce its imagined unilateral right to forcibly disarm other states. At the very least, the American left must demand that its government acts in strict compliance with the UN Charter. After almost thirty years of waste and catastrophe, it is time to bring the War on Weapon States to an end.
Michael Youhana is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley School of Law. You can follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Youhana.